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Felling the straw man

The problem is not with ministers’ foreign education but with their attitudes towards society


Having grown up on stories of Bunker Roy’s admirable work in Tilonia, I was distressed to read his article, ‘The barefoot government’ (IE, August 26). If this inconsistent, empirically flawed argument is any example of the kind of thinking he wants our educational system to encourage, there is something “dreadfully wrong” with his proposed reforms.

To begin with, he sets up a straw man to attack — the “foreign-returned degree-wallah” in the previous UPA government, whom he blames for all of India’s anti-poor policies, and in particular, for almost managing to “strangle the MGNREGA”. If he wanted to, why not just attack the troika of Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, instead of clothing it in an impossibly generalised argument? The most elementary reflection on the origins and formulation of the  MGNREGA would have shown the leading hand of not just the foreign-educated but foreign-born economist, Jean Dreze, as well as the role of foreign-born Sonia Gandhi in pushing it through. There are also any number of foreign-resident scholars like David Shulman and David Lelyveld, to name just two, who know Indian history, languages and culture much better than the Indian-born and Indian-educated “graduates who roam the streets of small towns and cities by the thousands, … practice the worst forms of cruelty, slavery and crimes against humanity”. This latter description covers not just past ministers but includes ministers of this government who have been accused of enabling communal carnage. So, the issue then is not where one is born or where one is educated, but what attitude one has towards the rest of society. It is true that the way certain disciplines like economics and political science are headed, with their over reliance on number crunching and faith in the free market, they are likely to produce people ignorant of society (not just Indian society but any society). However, to blame the disciplines would itself be too broad a generalisation. There is a struggle that needs to be waged over what should be taught and how, and this needs to be fought not just from outside but within the academy. Education does need to be responsive to society — not only to its immediate need for jobs, but also to its long-term need for critical thinking, innovation and beauty. Whole-scale uneducated attacks that do not recognise this knife-edge function hardly help.

Roy’s diatribe against vice-chancellors and his description of a “Class 12-pass woman minister speaking as an equal to almost 120 heavily qualified, on paper, vice chancellors” is foolish. Smriti Irani may be equal in gender terms, and more than equal in power, but is certainly not equal in terms of qualification. Is Roy saying that we should abolish all educational qualification? Why then is it relevant whether the minister even passed class 12? When I see how hard some of our students struggle, their diligence in learning a difficult academic language, the financial problems they suffer —  and not just for the paper qualification but because they genuinely believe in getting and generating knowledge — I refuse to accept that degrees don’t matter. Our highly educated former HRD ministers may not have done much for the education sector, but to then argue that it was because of their degrees is a straightforward logical fallacy. A degree may not be sufficient for being HRD minister, but it certainly helps to have one.

The more fundamental question that Roy raises, of course, is how to transform not just our education system but also our governance system to learn from the rural poor. But neither this government nor the previous one seriously cares about this issue. I am sick and tired of bureaucrats, industrialists and others saying that “people like me” — anthropologists — want to keep adivasis in museum cages. Does wanting to harness their ecological knowledge and preserve their languages while providing them the best possible education in formal biotechnology and world history sound like wanting to keep anyone in a museum? Does asking for peace and not war, for the acknowledgment and celebration of diversity sound like a policy for fossilisation? It is those who want to displace villagers, destroy the environment and introduce uniformity in language and religion — thus extinguishing the very bases of deep local knowledge — who want to keep adivasis backward. Neither Narendra Modi nor Irani, and certainly not Dina Nath Batra, has any vision on this issue. And for Roy to claim otherwise betrays his own moral and intellectual fatigue.

The writer is professor of sociology at Delhi University

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